You’re not wholly responsible for how your children turn out.


There are things about my children that I don’t like. Pause for a moment so I can be clear: I love my children unconditionally. They needn’t do anything to earn my love, and will always have it regardless of the decisions they make. That being said, I often find myself frustrated with some of the ways in which they interact with the world. I see them make choices and react to life in certain ways that I fear will cause them problems down the line. When my attention is focused on these things, I can easily spend hours worrying about how to fix them. I find myself parenting them based on fear 10 years down the road instead of on what is happening in the present moment. The weight of raising emotionally, physically, and mentally healthy individuals lies squarely on my shoulders.

Or, does it?

One of my children strikes me as more emotionally inhibited. She often tells white lies, and my husband and I joke that she is always “working an angle.” I struggle to know how she is really feeling because her responses to questions often seem inauthentic. I intuit that she prefers the answers that she believes will be best accepted versus the answers that are most true for her. When she’s upset, she sighs and hopes you’ll inquire. Or, she runs to her room and cries for an hour – very loudly – waiting for someone to come to her. I can’t even count the times she’s tried to emotionally manipulate her younger sister instead of simply asking for what she needs (ex: “If you don’t help me with these invitations, you’re not invited to my party!” instead of, “I’d really like some help because I don’t want to do it alone”).

I have had plenty of times where I have wished for her to be different. I want to teach her to be open and honest. I want to teach her the value of emotional vulnerability. I want her to know the strength that comes from learning to trust your intuition so that you make decisions for yourself instead of others. Hell, I want these things for ALL my children.

How many of you have worried that your children are learning habits and making choices that might not be good for them down the road? Anyone? ….Just me?

Here’s a radical thought for you: You are not wholly responsible for your children’s emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being.

“Sometimes we see our children doing things that we know will cause them to suffer in the future, but when we try to tell them, they won’t listen. All we can do is to stimulate the wholesome seeds in them, and then later, in a difficult moment, they may benefit from our guidance. We cannot explain an orange to someone who has never tasted one. No matter how well we describe it, we cannot give someone else the direct experience.” – The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh

You cannot force your children to make the decisions you deem “right.” You cannot monitor their behavior every moment of every day. You cannot force your children to be anything other than what they are, in this present moment. The best you can hope to do is to be a teacher for them.

Teach through your daily practices: do your children see you praying, or meditating every day? Do you put your smartphone away when sitting down for dinner? Do you smile at strangers, or hold the door open for someone as you walk into the store?

Teach through example: did you apologize after you yelled? Did you hold yourself back from a mean or nasty comment about someone you know? Did you tell the truth?

Teach through authenticity: do you change or disguise your personality, or the way in which you communicate, to avoid judgement from others? Or do you strive to be compassionate and generous with others while also being true to yourself?

Teach through vulnerability: do you protect yourself from all possible sources of hurt, betrayal, and disappointment? If so, you’re probably missing out on sources of joy as well. Brene Brown says, “I define vulnerability as uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. With that definition in mind, let’s think about love. Waking up every day and loving someone who may or may not love us back, whose safety we can’t ensure, who may stay in our lives or may leave without a moment’s notice, who may be loyal to the day they die or betray us tomorrow — that’s vulnerability.”

Teach through intentionality: Are you living your life in accordance with your values? Does your day-to-day rhythm reflect what is important to you? Are you a slave to your obligations, or do you carve joy into your day?

“Right View – the ability to see the wholesome seeds from the unwholesome roots that lie within each of us – cannot be described. We can only point in the correct direction. Right View cannot even be transmitted by a teacher. A teacher can help us identify the seed of Right View that is already in our garden, and help us have the confidence to practice, to entrust that seed to the soil of our daily life. But we are the gardener.” – The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh

In other words, you can only point your children in the right direction. You can show them the seeds that are there, detail how to plant them, and how often they should be watered. But you can’t do the actual work. It’s your child’s garden, and they are the gardener.

So here’s the thing: Keep loving your children. Do the best you can to raise them into wonderful human beings, but don’t beat yourself up when they make mistakes, fail at something, or get hurt. Tend to your own garden and let them watch. Invite them to join you. And remind yourself that you can’t do their work for them. 

Do you ever find yourself frustrated when your kids make bad decisions? Do you feel weighed down by thinking that you can’t “mess this up” – that you have to get this parenting thing right?

4 thoughts on “You’re not wholly responsible for how your children turn out.

  1. Allison says:

    Love it, Kimberly! “Tend to your own garden and let them watch” — sometimes I think mine watch me too well! That’s why I love the Work, because when I have a judgment of them, it reminds me to tend my own garden. 🙂 ” [R]emind yourself that you can’t do their work for them” — oh, amen, sister. Nor should we, right? They are their own gardeners! But it is a continual temptation. . . again Katie rings in my ears, “If it’s so great, you do it.” Yes, ma’am: Tend my own garden.

  2. Moriah says:

    I love this so much I don’t even know where to start! We must be the change we wish to see, is the quote that comes to my mind. I try so hard to do the things you mention. It’s so great to know that I’m not alone in this and that I can take a little pressure off of myself and be responsible to my children instead of for them.

  3. Marty Yenawine says:

    Kim – Wonderful & thought provoking questions. Great article. My mentor Jim Paluch, has always supported the idea that the only attitude I can change is my own. He uses the parable of the builder and destroyer comingling in ourselves. We have a cboice to do either, everyday, it is in our choice of attitude that the outcomes are realized. Jim is quick to cite “As a Man Thinketh” by James Allen. I use this lesson routinely with my youth care talks, interviews and facilitations. Your children are lucky to have a powerful, smart, loving woman in their life they can honor by calling “Mother”. Keep on doing great things, Ms. Mathis!

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